Colonie has but one option if the objective is to protect the beautiful piece of land known as Stony Creek Reservoir from development, open it up for passive recreational use, be fiscally responsible and still have an emergency source of drinking water.
Sell the land, keep the water.
Of course, that might be a simplified way of saying what is surely a complex legal negotiation with, presumably, Clifton Park that will involve the state Department of Health, the Open Space Institute, and probably a more than few attorneys and health and environmental experts. But it is the best way to go about making use of a beautiful valuable asset that has sat dormant.
Here is why we think so.
In 1953, a dam was built on the Stony Creek in Clifton Park to create a reservoir of water for the Town of Colonie. It acted as a backup water supply, with the primary sources of water for the town being the Mohawk River and five wells. Those sources are so plentiful, and the treatment plant so effective, that not a drop from the Stony Creek has come into Colonie since 2004.
With more than 26,000 connections, and who knows how many people using water from those connections, there has to be a backup and for decades the Stony Creek filled that need. It was never the most practical or efficient, but it did the job and it wasn’t outrageously expensive to maintain.
Now, though, it’s obsolete, said Latham Water District Superintendent John Frazer, thanks to a newly constructed interconnect with the City of Albany which can provide the town with treated, potable water by simply turning a valve. Any water coming from Stony Creek would have to be run through the treatment plant before it reaches the public so if there is a problem with the plant, the water from Stony Creek is nearly useless or at least not nearly as efficient.
In other words, the town doesn’t need Stony Creek any longer and is looking at options — keep it all, sell it all, sell some of it and keep some of it, sell all of it but keep water rights. An Request for Proposals has been issued and the town will take at least the next 18 months to gather information and decide what to do.
The Town of Clifton Park is again interested and rightly so. It is a beautiful piece of land that would make a fine public park in their ever growing suburb. Right now the reservoir, in all its glory, is just there, hidden away behind trees and nobody can use the 936 acres for anything. According to protections written into Department of Health rules and regulations in 1953, when the creek became a reservoir, people can’t use the land or water for a casual walk, cast a worm hoping for a bite, take a ride in a kayak or even watch a bird through a pair of binoculars.
The DOH can change the rules and regulations and allow passive recreation but it is a long, arduous process with details to work out like insurance, maintenance of the dam and the park, governance and protecting the water should it remain an emergency source of water.
It’s not impossible. Other reservoirs across the state allow fishing and hiking and boating so why not Stony Creek? If Frazer and crew can bring Mohawk River water to above state drinking standards, there is no reason they can’t do it with water from the Stony Creek after someone floats a kayak on it.
To accomplish all that, the Town of Colonie would need some help; the logical place to turn is the Town of Clifton Park. It’s not the first time the two have flirted with the idea, but now, unlike in 2009, the Albany interconnect is up and running and Colonie doesn’t have to worry about an emergency backup source of water.
Or, better put, it has to worry about it less.
The Stony Creek hasn’t been used in 17 years and the town has not had to tap into Albany water since the interconnections were operational two years ago. But, having available 6 million gallons of water a day — which is the maximum the town can get from the reservoir as per its state permit — is still not a bad thing. It may sound like a lot, but it’s about half of what the town can get from the Albany interconnects and only about a quarter of the peak daily usage in 2020, which came in June with 23.2 million gallons used in one day.
Odds are, the town will never have to tap into the Stony Creek again. The Latham Water District is solid. Frazer has been at the helm for 21 years, hired under a Republican administration and held over by the Democrats, and he knows his trade and applies it well. He doesn’t advocate for an outright sale, but he isn’t against it either. In his learned opinion, the town doesn’t need it so why not sell it and spend the money on necessary upgrades to the district like replacing aged pipes or improvements at the treatment plant. The district owns the reservoir, it’s the district’s to sell and all the proceeds will remain in district coffers and not the town’s general fund.
If the town doesn’t need it, why not just sell it? We are 90 percent behind doing just that.
But, a number of speakers during a recent public information meeting — some armed with data and facts and/or intuitive questions and some with a blind hatred for anything Supervisor Paula Mahan does or says — brought up points worth considering.
The agreement with Albany might be fair to both municipalities and be able to provide an adequate emergency supply should the need arise in Colonie or Albany but it doesn’t wholly protect Colonie. The rates are not locked in and are based on Albany’s historically unstable budget. And Albany does not have to allow Colonie to tap into its water supply. Those caveats go both ways, so Albany, too, is not 100 percent covered by the agreement. And, Albany has been forced to use Colonie water while Colonie has not had to use Albany water so the scale may slightly tip towards the town, but not by enough.
As we all know, weather has been a bit whacky as of late thanks, at least in part, to global warming and who knows if there won’t be a drought as bad or worse than the last major one to hit this area in the 1960s. At that time, Frazer said, the Mohawk and the wells still supplied enough water but the town has grown since then and so has the Latham Water District. More people means more water — so if that scenario played out today who knows if the town would have enough water even with the standard restrictions in place.
Right now the town spends about $224,000 a year to maintain the site and pay property and school taxes. It’s a significant amount of money but it’s not breaking the bank. Selling the land to Clifton Park would help offset that expense. Or maybe lease everything to Clifton Park while holding onto water rights for, say, $224,000 a year.
If done properly, the Town of Clifton Park and the Capital District would get a new park complete with a really nice lake and the Town of Colonie would keep it’s backup (to the backup) water supply in case a hydro-Armageddon hits the Capital District.